The Power of Words

I often begin blog posts by referring to an interview or podcast I listened to. This one is no exception. George Packer, a journalist and novelist perhaps best known for his writings on American foreign policy, was a guest on Preet Bharara’s Stay Tuned. Most of their discussion was about the status of the United States as a world leader (lots to worry about there, but not the subject of this essay). Toward the end of the interview, they turned to a subject of particular interest to me – the use of language and whether we are increasingly limiting ourselves by removing words that have negative connotations. It is a variation of the idea that it is problematic to be ‘woke.’  As I wrote previously, I strive to be woke and see it as a good thing. However, I thought Mr. Packer had a point. He wasn’t taking aim at ‘wokeness,’ per se, he was voicing his concern that, taken to an extreme, the idea that we can’t hurt anyone’s feelings could prevent us from identifying and solving serious problems. The example he gave related to words used to describe poverty – for instance, poor, impoverished, disadvantaged, at-risk. Apparently, all of these words/phrases have been identified as loaded and therefore to be avoided.

First question: who is doing the identifying? Packer explained that many nonprofit organizations, he cited the Sierra Club as a prominent one, have come out with ‘equity guides.’ These guides provide lists of words that should not be used, and he said they provide clunky, bland alternatives (for example, instead of ‘paralyzed with fear,’ they substitute refused to take action). He characterized the people behind these guides as a small group of educated elites. He thought that though they were well-intentioned, they were doing more harm than good. Packer’s main point was that we need to be less worried about the words and more concerned about the underlying problem that the word describes. I was intrigued by his argument.

I wondered if I would draw the same conclusion as Packer if I looked at the guide, so I googled a few. I also read his article in the Atlantic in which he fleshes out his argument (

The Sierra Club equity guide is a 30 page pamphlet which provides much food for thought (here is the link if you want to check it out yourself Included in it are references to many other style guides (I counted 9 of them!) as source material.

First, some context. Most news organizations and magazines have style guides – the Associated Press (AP) style guide is one that is frequently cited. If you write for those entities, they have established standards you are expected to follow. Organizations which put out frequent press releases or social media posts or are routinely called upon by the media to express positions are also likely to have one – that is why the Sierra Club has one, as does the American Cancer Society. The equity guide is an offshoot (part of) of the style guide.

Another aspect of the context relates to the Sierra Club specifically. They, like many organizations, have a complicated history in terms of their relationship to historically marginalized communities. In the past the club has mostly been thought of as the purview of white, male environmentalists. As the country has changed, and as the damage done by climate change has hit more broadly, they have needed to reach a more diverse constituency. If they are going to do that successfully, they need to understand those communities and use accessible language. They have taken positions in the past that hurt those communities.  In addition, the original founder, John Muir, was known to use racist language. Thus, the organization felt it had some work to do to repair the damage. That said, equity guides are prevalent beyond this particular nonprofit and Packer believes that as it seeps into the mainstream, it will erode our ability to tell the truth.

So, is there a problem with the equity guide, as Packer argues? My conclusion: Yes and no.

The main impetus of the guide is to remind its users to put people first. I became acquainted with this notion years ago when I was cautioned not to refer to a person with diabetes as a diabetic. A person is more than any single aspect of their identity, whether it be their illness, disability, religion, occupation, etc. It may not seem like a big thing, but I believe it is meaningful and worth reminding folks.

Another main point of the pamphlet is to ask people how they would like to be identified. It reminds us not to make assumptions based on appearance, and to use the terms the individual themselves would like to use. This applies especially to race and gender. To me this is common sense advice and simple enough to follow.

They also ask writers to evaluate whether the descriptor is germane to the subject. Do we need to know the person’s age or race or gender? We are conditioned to include some of those characteristics, but it is worth asking ourselves the question. Is it relevant or does it just contribute to stereotyping? If we are trying to paint a picture of a person or a situation, maybe more specific adjectives would do a better job.

So far so good.

Where things get problematic, and where Packer has a point, is in the avoidance of words that make us uncomfortable. If we are talking about poverty, neighborhoods that are poor, we can’t use euphemisms. It is what it is. The folks who live in those communities know they are poor and/or working class. It won’t come as a surprise to them. The problem isn’t the words. The problem is, in my estimation, the assumptions that get made because of that condition. Just as we should not define an individual by a single characteristic (diabetic), we must not define a whole community by one issue (i.e., its crime rate or the percent who live below the poverty line). We often write-off those communities or try to ignore them. But, we must not ignore all the people who are trying to raise families, make a living, lead healthy, productive lives in those communities. We need to remember that in those communities lots of good things are happening – there is culture, art, humor, good food, etc., etc. No matter what words we ultimately use to describe poverty, it is the associated assumptions that are dangerous, not the words themselves.

Words have power. We need to be mindful of how we use them. Sometimes we need to vividly describe a problem to move people to action. At the same time, we shouldn’t be careless about hurting folks. On balance, I think the equity guides are a good thing. Some of its advice borders on silly (I sincerely doubt that a person in a wheelchair would be offended by using the phrase ‘paralyzed with fear,’ or that a blind person would object to the phrase ‘blind rage’ – though it would be interesting to ask a group), but users of the guide can make their own judgments. In fact, the pamphlets make a point of telling readers to do that, especially in view of regional and local standards. The guides could be problematic if a given organization implements it as if it is law, without leaving room for nuance or the wisdom of the people on the ground. But, if it is a tool to raise awareness and offer alternatives, then it isn’t the bogeyman Packer sets it up to be. As with many things, the question of whether it is a good or bad thing depends on how it is used.

6 thoughts on “The Power of Words

  1. Such a challenging topic and one that I suspect many people would be hesitant of going on the record about out of fear of regretting something they might say. But also an important one and I very much appreciate your common sense approach. It seems reasonable to be sensitive about how we stereotype people and also reasonable to say things that are true even if they sometimes hurt.
    Thank you


  2. In the novel 1984, big brother made Winston Smith believe 2+2=3. Today, through the control of language and what can and cannot be said, people are being manipulated into thinking things are not what they are. If a man identifies as a woman, that person can call itself/herself/herself (I don’t know what the correct word is in this situation) whatever it wants. It’s their First Amendment right. They problem is when society wants everyone to call that person a woman when they don’t see that person as a woman. It is wrong for society to force or coerce someone to say or believe something that they believe is false. It has gotten so bad that a Supreme Court justice is afraid to define the word woman, a word we all learned before we could even read.

    P.S. I hope you find this reply double plus good.


    1. I think Gary makes the most important point about having compassion for people. I would like to make a simpler point – people can just be wrong in their assumptions. There are men (who identify as men) who may be mistaken for a woman; there are females (who identify as women) who get misidentified as men. Appearances can be deceiving – especially for teens and tweens – without even talking about people who choose to dress in a typically feminine or masculine way. When I was growing up I wore oversized sweatshirts and overalls because I was self-conscious, not because I wanted to be a man. I had numerous occasions where a person thought I was a boy. It was confusing and difficult. I think there is a lot more nuance than you are willing to acknowledge. I do not think it is analogous to insisting that 2+2=3. We may just need to agree to disagree. I appreciate you offering your perspective and hope you will continue to. Thanks.


      1. I think you both missed my point. I don’t disagree with either of your replies. In fact you stereotyped me by implying I don’t have compassion or understanding for transgendered people. My point is not about transgender people. My point is that society, the woke or big brother should not make people see or say or believe something that their senses say is false. My height is 5’5″. If I tell you I’m 6’5″, even if you say I’m 6’5″ you don’t believe I’m 6’5″. Should you be coerced to believe I’m 6’5″?


  3. Stewart, I wanted to reply to your comment as I have had some experience taking care of transgender individuals. These people have spent tortured years feeling great distress over being stuck in a body they see as foreign. They fear the response of society and of people they know. They have very high rates of depression and of suicide.
    Being transgender is outside the experience of most of us, but I think it is best to try to address people as they wish to be addressed.
    This is a highly vulnerable minority and they are now a prime target of attacks across the country. I can understand what it feels like to be a vulnerable minority. And I know what it feels like when people are using negative stereotypes to dehumanize or make a group look somehow dangerous.
    I just want to make sure we don’t hurt innocent people struggling to find their way. Of course, I know hurting them or dehumanizing them is not your goal. But I also think we need to think a bit what it’s like to walk in the other guy’s shoes.


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